INDEPENDENT South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon has softened his hard-line stance on banning the live animal export trade.
He remains concerned about the annual $1 billion trade but now has a more pragmatic approach, believing greater collaboration can achieve broader policy outcomes and improvements.
“Both major parties have said they’re committed to the live export trade so it would be bonkers to ignore a fundamental reality of their support,” he said.
“So the question is - how do you achieve outcomes that are in the national interest like creating more local jobs, a better supply chain and animal welfare standards and selling more chilled meat overseas?”
“I do think we have huge potential to provide protein to the region and beyond”
Leading up to and during the Indonesian live cattle export trade suspension in June 2011, Senator Xenophon was a highly outspoken critic of the trade, making regular media statements voicing his opposition to live ex and speaking at public rallies backing calls for a total ban.
At the time, he stood alongside fellow Independent MP Andrew Wilkie to propose new legislation to phase out the trade over three years, largely in response to unacceptable animal welfare standards in foreign abattoirs.
While Mr Wilkie has continued his staunch opposition and raised further legislative proposals to ban the trade, Senator Xenophon has been largely silent on the issue in recent times.
Over the past two years, Senator Xenophon has met with Top End cattlemen and others impacted by the Labor government’s month-long ban on cattle exports to Indonesia. Leading up to a Federal Senate hearing into live exports in Darwin in August 2011, he spent the day with cattlemen and industry members devastated by the ban, hearing their views and observing their business practices.
Senator Xenophon said that was an “uncomfortable” experience and it would have been easier for him not to go at all - but he felt obligated to meet producers face-to-face.
“What I saw was a group of people who followed by the rules, did the right thing, looked after their animals and who became the innocent casualties in all of this,” he said.
“At the very least the government should have had a comprehensive compensation package in place so they weren’t out of pocket (from the ban).”
Senator Xenophon said during his Top End visit, he witnessed cattle producer facilities and animal welfare practices that were “world class”.
He said the producers were also “blameless” in regards to the shocking animal cruelty images shown on ABC's Four Corners which sparked the Indonesian market suspension.
Two years on the Senator still believes Animals Australia’s Lyn White played a critical role in exposing the supply chain failures and questions about Meat and Livestock Australia’s role in the controversy.
Senator Xenophon stopped short of saying his views on live exports had changed completely due to his Top End visit, but said his position had now “evolved” towards a more informed view which seeks to achieve “better results” all round.
He still doesn’t like live exports - but also detests the way cattle producers and industry members were treated by the sudden ban.
He believes DAFF and AusTrade need to make “a bigger effort” to work with industry and foreign markets to encourage an expansion in chilled meat exports, including increased access to refrigeration for meat consumers in those markets.
“I do think we have huge potential to provide protein to the region and beyond,” he said.
“Australia may almost need to provide community refrigeration to stimulate that sector of the market.”
Senator Xenophon is primarily concerned with cutting the volume of live sheep exports to the Middle East due to it being a more “problematic” or longer voyage for those animals, compared with cattle headed to Indonesia.
In 2012, Australia exported about 2.3 million sheep valued at $277 million with 99 percent shipped to the Middle East, with WA’s contribution totalling 1.76 million head valued at $215 million.
He says more work is needed to improve animal welfare outcomes in the export supply chain, including increasing the uptake of pre-slaughter stunning in foreign abattoirs.
With Australian jobs in mind, he also wants to see local abattoir processing and production capacity increased.
“These are all things we can do at once,” he said.
“Because if you have an absolutist approach you won’t solve the problem - you’ll just have people in their corners saying, ‘no live exports’ and others saying ‘there’s nothing wrong; it’s business as usual’.
“Where there’s common ground you should work towards those outcomes because the effect of that would also be to reduce the reliance on live exports for Australian farmers.
“Nobody wants to see animals being mistreated by virtue of a long journey or being mistreated in overseas abattoirs.
“But people also don’t want to see starving cattle having their eyes picked out by crows and being eaten alive here in Australia.”
Senator Xenophon said he’d like to see improvements in supply chains; significant processing and productive capacity built in Northern Australia; greater marketing focus on exporting boxed chilled meat, especially to the Middle East; and greater value-adding to the meat export trade to create thousands more jobs in Australia.
He said responsible groups like the RSPCA also need to play a greater role to reduce friction and build better working relations with the $1 billion per year live export industry.
“There needs to be an ongoing dialogue between both the critics of industry and industry itself to find common ground rather than be at loggerheads continually,” he said.
“It’s not in the national interest to have this constant clash between the two groups.”